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The Memorial Day Massacre: A Lost Piece of History

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You might think that, having been raised a mile from where 10 workers were killed and 30 more were shot by police while picketing a steel plant, I would have heard of such a tragedy. More confounding, my great-uncle, Eddie Marasovic, was wounded by a police bullet in that violent affair that would become known as a massacre.

Yet I knew nothing of it. 

It happened in May, 1937, before I was born, on the prairie outside the Republic Steel plant on Chicago’s East Side. This spit of land, along Lake Michigan’s southern tip, linked the steel plants of southern Chicago to a long string of industry that reached through Indiana, giving rise to what labor economists called the largest steel producing region in the world. 

Why did I only learn about the killing of workers from a poster of the massacre that I found in a bookstore, in a city located two states away, nearly half a century after the event transpired?

The Memorial Day Massacre, as many refer to it, was largely repressed by many in the community where it occurred.

In the late 1990s when I began researching it, scholars had also neglected the tragedy for decades. Greg Mitchell’s new PBS film and book, Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried, explore how vital evidence — a Paramount newsreel — helped union leaders and civil libertarians turn the tide against the extreme pro-police news coverage in the immediate aftermath of the killings.

A single newsreel cameraman, Orlando Lippert of Paramount News, captured the tragedy on film. Lippert’s footage, suppressed by Paramount until a congressional committee under progressive Sen. Robert M. La Follette Jr. (D-Wisc.) screened it, showed police firing at protesters, striking 40 of them, the vast majority in the back or on the side.

The newsreel provided vital proof of corporate and state violence against working Americans. 

How had events transpired as they did?

Tensions had been ratcheting up for months ahead of the tragedy. In 1935, the new Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO), under the leadership of United Mine Workers’ John L. Lewis, organized industrial labor, unskilled workers flexed their muscle. And, in late 1936, workers set off the sit-down craze, initiating hundreds of strikes from late November 1936 through the spring of 1937.

Lewis’s CIO achieved an agreement with U.S. Steel, the largest producer in the country, but Thomas M. Girdler, the CEO of Republic Steel, and the heads of other smaller steel companies (known as Little Steel), vowed to keep unions out. When workers called a strike at these plants, unionists rallied at Republic Steel. But Chicago police refused to let strikers picket the plant and on May 28, 1937, they viciously beat strikers, including women. 

To build community support, workers organized a Memorial Day picnic for families and labor activists on the prairie several blocks from their plant. More than 1,000 people showed up, many in their Sunday best, and then set off on a peaceful march to form a picket line close to the Republic plant. 

Police halted them halfway there. Orlando Lippert’s newsreel of events shows men and women gesticulating to police. Seconds later, the film shows workers fleeing. Police run after them, many with guns drawn, and fire upon the crowd. Four workers died of their wounds immediately, and within three weeks, another six had lost their lives. Others were hospitalized due to severe beatings. One boy, age 11, was shot in the foot. 

My grandmother’s youngest brother, my great uncle Eddie, was one of those who had been shot. Ironically, though I learned of the massacre in 1983 at the Northern Sun bookstore in Minneapolis, I only discovered our personal connection at a family wedding several years later. My great uncle’s daughter shared the story of her father having been shot that Memorial Day.

In 1996, in the midst of my graduate studies, examining how news photography shaped labor conflict, I interviewed my aunts and uncles to see if I could find out more. They knew nothing of the Memorial Day Massacre. I became fascinated, not only about the events in Chicago, but about the ways in which it had been forgotten. 

Only from an oral history that my brother, Michael, conducted with our grandparents did I find out that my grandfather was working in the Republic plant for 17 days before and after the massacre. He was one of the “loyal workers” the company deployed to suggest the strikers did not represent most workers. He was, in effect, a scab. My uncle Eddie, in contrast, stood on the field that day, fighting for the right to a union.

I have few strands of information, hardly more than whispers, of Eddie’s life.

He continued his employment at Republic Steel for nearly four decades. But these are the lone facts I can dredge up. From family, there is little more. Others, notably urban sociologist William Kornblum in his 1975 book Blue Collar Community, have observed that Chicago’s East Siders did not want to discuss the events that so divided their community.

As documentarian George Stoney found in his exploration of Southern millworkers involved in the 1934 general textile strike, being subject to state violence can cause trauma or shame, making workers suspicious and willing to repress their own experiences.

Even the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) refused to honor the massacre’s victims — it took a decade for the union’s newspaper to print the infamous photographs of its members being beaten and shot at by police, even as other union papers and metropolitan dailies published such imagery. In 1937, SWOC was fighting for its right to exist — and it may have feared scaring off membership by highlighting the massacre.

The intransigence of Girdler and the other Little Steel executives soon stymied the union drive. Little Steel only accepted union representation after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1940 that workers deserved compensation for the companies’ illegal actions against them, and as President Franklin D. Roosevelt forced industry to negotiate with unions if they wanted federal defense contracts.

While workers did not obtain contracts immediately, efforts at curtailing labor spies, corporate mercenaries, and police overreaction to labor disputes mostly succeeded. A committee under Sen. La Follette probed the massacre and exposed the buried Paramount footage.

This spotlight upon extralegal violence helped curb it in the future. Documenting and publicizing the surveillance of workers — and the collusion between private “security” forces, police and the National Guard — lmited such practices. The stifling of violence, and federal support for unions along with workers’ ongoing mobilization, ultimately led a third of the nation’s industrial workforce to enjoy union representation by the early 1950s.

It was only in the mid-1990s that I began to deeply research the story of the massacre. By reading the La Follette transcripts, I was able to find traces of my great uncle.

I knew from a second cousin that her father, Eddie Marasovic, had been shot in his leg, and he carried the bullet in his body to the grave. Unexpectedly I encountered his name, in Exhibit #1463: A medical examiner’s sketch of a body, with dots strewn across the drawing, for all the bullets that more than two dozen activists had borne that day. My great-uncle’s name corresponds to the bullet that wounded his leg.

My family had been touched by history, recorded in history, and yet those marks had been lost to me. Repressed, censored or silenced — I am still trying to learn.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 4, 2023. It is an adapted excerpt from the foreword to he book, “Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried” by Greg Mitchell. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Carol Quirke is a professor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury and is the author of “Eyes on Labor.


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Labor Movement Growth: Its Seeds are Spreading

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Hamilton Nolan


In 2015, a group of my colleagues and I decided to try to unionize our company, Gawker Media. This mostly involved an intense, weeks-long process of speaking to everyone we worked with to convince them why this would be a good idea.

As we did that, one thing became clear: Even in a newsroom populated overwhelmingly by outspoken left-wingers, most people didn’t know that much about unions.

How did they work? What were the rules? We encountered not hostility so much as people chewing over, for the first time, something they had never really considered.

There were two obvious reasons for this. First, there were not many unions in our particular industry at the time, so few people had ever been union members before. And second, only one in ten workers in the whole damn country were union members, meaning that, unlike in past generations, few people had grown up with a parent or friend or relative who was a union member.

A consequence of the long term dwindling of union density was that casual contact with unions had also dwindled. Fewer people had a mom who was a shop steward, an uncle who went on strike or a friend who could tell them about a great new contract at their job. Lower union membership meant more widespread ignorance about what unions were all about — which, in turn, meant that every new organizing drive was more of an uphill battle. The decline of unions in the past drove further decline in the present. 

But this dynamic also runs in reverse.

As more and more companies in our industry unionized, unions rapidly evolved from a novelty to a necessity. The people who won a union at one workplace told their friends at the next workplace. It spread. It became less mysterious. For non-union workers, every new union somewhere else was a reminder that they might be missing out on something. After four or five years, it started to be more noticeable when a newsroom wasn’t unionized. The idea, made real, sold itself. 

Here is some good news: This snowball effect that propels the labor movement forward is getting big now.

Big enough to pay attention to. Think about the implications of the fact that tens of thousands of people in higher ed — most of them grad and undergrad workers — have unionized in just the past two years. Tens of thousands more of them, already unionized, have gone on strike.

A characteristic of this particular group of workers is that the vast majority of them are not going to spend their entire careers on college campuses. They will go through these big union drives, contract fights, and strikes, and then they will go out into the world. All over the place. Credentialed in every field, they will go to white collar offices and blue collar jobs and, no doubt, into service and retail jobs.

Each one of them is a seed that can grow another union wherever they end up. Tens of thousands of young people, all former union members, experienced in labor battles, percolating into every crevice of the working world. Tens of thousands of young people who know what unions can do, who know how organizing is done, who are harder to trick with anti-union lies, filtering into countless non-union workplaces. Everywhere. 

This is how it spreads. This is what we need.

Every union is important for its own members, but what is even more important about the current wave of campus union activity is that it has big numbers of people involved, and those people are about to scatter like dandelion seeds blown in the wind. The most vital legacy of these higher ed unions will not be what they do on campus, but what they lead to everywhere else. 

There is another ingredient adding fuel to this fire: attention.

The past decade’s widespread unionization of media outlets did not produce a huge number of new union members, but it did produce a drastic increase in reporters who were interested in organized labor, which led to more coverage. That interest found a home, most notably, in the union drives at Starbucks and Amazon, lending both of those campaigns a national importance that exceeds their raw numbers. 

I spent the past year reporting and writing a book about the labor movement, and everywhere I went, people told me that they were inspired by Starbucks and Amazon.

The increased media focus on labor combined with these name brand campaigns has elevated the idea of unions into the national consciousness.

Every big strike that makes the news helps. If screenwriters go on strike on May 1, as looks possible, Hollywood will shut down, and labor power will grab center stage every time anyone turns on their TV. Even normies have heard of this stuff.

This may seem like a small thing, but it isn’t. It provides people with a reference point — a mental foundation to build on. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

This is a portion of a blog that originally appeared in full at In These Times on April 20, 2023.


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Federal Workers Need a Functioning Federal Labor Board

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Federal workers are in unfamiliar territory with the wind at our backs. The tight labor market; popular sympathies after three bitter government shutdowns over the past decade; the Biden administration’s reversal of Trump’s abusive anti-union policies — all this sets the stage for possible rank-and-file-led advances in working conditions and new organizing in the federal sector.

But it’s not clear how long this window of opportunity will remain open. Now is the time to get organized — not only within locals to win better contracts and enforce our rights, but also nationally and politically, among all the different unions and agencies.

For starters, there’s one urgent demand that we should all support: the confirmation of incumbent Ernest DuBester to serve another term at the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

The FLRA governs federal labor relations, akin to what the National Labor Relations Board does in the private sector. In particular, the three-member board hears arbitration appeals and negotiability disputes.

Without DuBester it’s a split board — the two remaining members were appointed one by Trump, the other by Biden — and the confidence of federal unions in negotiating and enforcing agreements will be diminished.

The demand to fill a labor board seat might not sound like a recipe for reviving a fighting movement. But paired with a push by federal workers to improve working conditions, a victorious grassroots push to confirm DuBester can lead on to more victories.

UNIONIZED BUT FRAGMENTED

The U.S. government is the country’s largest employer, with 2.1 million employees, not counting postal workers. Though this workforce is relatively union-dense (1.2 million are represented), it is also an open shop environment where fewer than 20 percent pay dues to a union.

Most of the 400,000 federal union members belong to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE); another quarter are members of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU). The remainder are split among two dozen unions.

By profession the workforce is mainly white collar, though there are also significant numbers of blue collar workers, such as wildland firefighters, custodial workers, and maintenance mechanics. Geographically, aside from some concentrated pockets—chiefly in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., region where 15 percent of us work—the full federal workforce is distributed thinly throughout the country.

The result of such an atomized workforce is that federal workers exert far too little political and bargaining power for our numbers.

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

Legally, the deck is stacked against federal unions. Unlike in the private sector, owing to major concessions enshrined in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, pay and major benefits like health care are off the table in our collective bargaining.

Instead, our uniquely limited scope of bargaining covers working conditions and how (and how much) any union member may conduct representational activities while on the clock.

The open shop plus a strict ban on work stoppages limits union leverage. Accounting for this, the law elevates the role of government “neutrals” to adjudicate disputes. And as we’ve seen, “neutrals” are often anything but neutral.

Over the five years that the FLRA was run by a Trump-appointed majority, a hard anti-union agenda was pushed through every forum — from disbanding entire unions (such as those representing the FLRA’s own staff and immigration judges at the Department of Justice) to further limiting the scope of bargaining through an expansive interpretation of management rights.

BROAD RANKS OF UNION REPS

Despite these limitations, the FLRA does lend federal workers the opportunity to directly negotiate and enforce details on a vast array of working conditions — such as telework policies, disciplinary guidelines, health and safety measures, and work performance assessment procedures.

This potential for direct self-representation is owed to the law’s requirement that the government release workers from their job duties to conduct representational union functions while on official time.

Done strategically, spreading official time among the broadest possible ranks of the workplace allows for more workers to do the work of their unions — while avoiding the need to take experienced leaders entirely away from regular work duties.

This way, veteran leaders can maintain their connection to the workplace and a larger base of new union leaders can be developed. If we emphasize self-representation and prioritize negotiating working conditions and the details of the work process, we can develop a new strategy to rebuild federal unionism from the bottom up.

But all that potential can be lost if those few favorable features of the law aren’t upheld by the FLRA.

A RALLYING CRY

If DuBester remains unconfirmed at the end of this calendar year, the FLRA will be split between its remaining two members, Trump nominee Colleen Duffy Kiko and Biden nominee Susan Tsui Grundmann, and subsequently unable to issue decisions on controversial matters.

In more than four decades of modern federal labor relations, FLRA confirmations have typically been handled quietly by Senate leaders, perhaps with some nudging by the big unions. Members and locals were not consulted, let alone required, for the confirmation process.

But these days, nothing is typical. For Biden’s first nominee to the FLRA, Grundmann, a months-long drumbeat from national labor leaders was not enough to win confirmation in the Senate.

Only in May, after a few dozen union locals representing some 20,000 feds from across the country signed onto an unforgiving letter directed at Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, did the political will materialize to see Grundmann confirmed.

The letter was part of a grassroots effort initiated early this year by an informal network of federal local leaders who were frustrated by the persistent presence of the Trump majority more than a year into the Biden administration.

A NEW OPEN LETTER

In the case of DuBester, Republicans are refusing to let his nomination out of committee, threatening to deny Biden the majority membership that the President is supposed to enjoy at the FLRA. The Senate has unanimously confirmed DuBester to all three previous terms he has served, beginning with his first nomination in 2009.

The only way around the GOP’s obstruction would be through a “discharge petition” to bring the nomination directly to the Senate floor. Such a parliamentary maneuver would require support from all 50 Senate Democrats.

Well over a year since Biden nominated him, it falls to the rank and file once again to push to get DuBester confirmed. A new open letter from local leaders and members is circulating, this time addressed to Biden, extending an offer to support the President’s nominee.

If federal union activists rally behind Ernest DuBester in the coming months, we might just manage to defeat Republican efforts to handicap federal unions. In the process, win or lose, we can cohere a national cohort of the next generation of government union leaders — and the years ahead could be full of experiments in creative, local and member-led federal unionism.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 13, 2022. It is republished with permission.

About the Authors: Chris Dols, Mark Smith, and Morgan Stewart wrote this blog. Chris Dols is president of IFPTE Local 98 at the New York District of the Army Corps of Engineers. Mark Smith is a steward with NFFE Local 1 at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Healthcare System. Morgan Stewart is president of AFGE Local 3380 at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Richmond, Virginia.

Learn more about federal workers’ rights on Workplace Fairness’ page.


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The New ‘Lavender Scare’ Is an Attack on the Working Class

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Maximillion Alvarez

Things are getting very dark in this country, and it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better.

At every turn — as collective society breaks down, as the ruling class continues to rob us blind, as humanity barrels towards climate catastrophe — working people are being encouraged to turn on each other and to see certain groups of their fellow workers as the enemy.

From the demonization and increasingly violent attacks against LGBTQIA+ people, to an extremist-dominated Supreme Court preparing to strip away queer people’s right to marry, to legislatures around the country working to eliminate trans people’s right to exist, we must respond to these assaults on our neighbors and coworkers with the same spirit of solidarity that gives life to labor’s eternal message: an injury to one is an injury to all.

In a special and urgent podcast episode, we speak with Gabbi Pierce and Martha Grevatt about how far the labor movement has come in defending the rights of LGBTQIA+ workers, how far we still have to go, and what role the labor movement can and must play in fighting for dignity and equality for all.

Gabbi Pierce is an organizer with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), co-chair of Pride at Work — Twin Cities, and she is the first transgender person to serve on the Minnesota AFL-CIO General Board. Martha Grevatt is a retired autoworker and member of the United Auto Workers (UAW); she formerly served as Executive Board member for UAW Locals 122 and 869 and was a founding member of Pride at Work.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 1, 2022 and references a podcast that may be heard at its website. The full transcript is posted to the website as well. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Maximillion Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People.


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The Lie that Helped Kill the Labor Movement

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Ian Ward

In late March of 1969, Dominick Manoli, an associate general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board, appeared before the Supreme Court to deliver oral arguments in National Labor Relations Board v. Gissel Packing Company, Inc. At issue in the case was the NLRB’s policy regarding labor unions formed by “card check,” a process that allowed workers to form a union by collecting signed authorization cards from a majority of their bargaining unit rather than by participating in a formal, NLRB-supervised election. The NLRB’s policy toward these unions, known as the “Joy Silk doctrine,” was clear: In the absence of a “good faith doubt” about the union’s majority status, employers were obligated to recognize it as the workers’ exclusive bargaining agent. If the employer refused without a good faith doubt, the NLRB would issue a bargaining order to compel them to come to the table.

But when Associate Justice Byron White asked Manoli to explain how the Joy Silk doctrine would apply to a situation in which an employer, without a good faith doubt about the authenticity of the union’s majority, declined to recognize a union on the grounds that the employer preferred a formal election, Manoli’s response came as something of a surprise: He stated the exact opposite of the board’s position.
“The [NLRB’s] general counsel will not issue a complaint … in that kind of situation where the employer says to the union, ‘I don’t wish to rely upon cards,” Manoli told White.

“‘I don’t care how many cards you’ve got. I just don’t like it,’” said White, ventriloquizing the position of an employer.

“That’s right,” Manoli replied.

No one knows for sure why Manoli misstated the board’s position — but regardless of his true motives, his arguments stuck. In its decision in Gissel, the Supreme Court concluded that the NLRB had abandoned Joy Silk altogether and put forward a new standard according to which the board would in general only issue bargaining orders if it could prove that an employer had committed “outrageous” or “pervasive” unfair labor practices that made the conduct of a fair election unlikely or impossible. Two years later, in 1971, Richard Nixon’s NLRB formally amended its policy to align with the court’s decision in Gissel, indicating in a written decision that it would no longer inquire into employers’ good faith — or lack thereof — when deciding whether to issue a bargaining order to an employer who declined to recognize a card check.

Half a century later, this episode has taken on new relevance as the labor movement and its allies in the Biden administration seek to correct Manoli’s mistake. In April, Jennifer Abruzzo, President Joe Biden’s choice to serve as the NLRB’s general counsel, filed a brief in an ongoing dispute before the NLRB recommending that the five-member board readopt Joy Silk as its governing policy. (The brief makes only passing mention of Manoli’s role in the end of Joy Silk, noting in a footnote that “the Associate General Counsel misrepresented controlling Board law regarding the Joy Silk doctrine” during oral arguments in Gissel.) The board, composed of three Democratic-appointed members and two Republican-appointed members, is expected to issue a decision on Abruzzo’s recommendation in the coming months.

For many labor advocates, reinstating Joy Silk would be the first step toward addressing the lasting consequences of Manoli’s reversal. Today, it remains virtually impossible for unions to receive recognition via card check, forcing workers to rely instead on the more protracted and legally-complex process of a board-supervised election. According to some labor experts, the election process in the post-Joy Silk era remains weighted heavily in favor of employers, who are able to use an array of unfair practices to disperse support for a union without triggering a bargaining order under the Gissel standard.

“It’s striking to look at the surge in unfair labor practices that basically started precisely after 1969,” says Brian Petruska, general counsel at LIUNA Mid-Atlantic Regional Organizing Fund and the author of a 2017 article about the Joy Silk doctrine for the Santa Clara Law Review that Abruzzo cites in her brief. “What [the data] shows is that the situation has continued to get worse.”

Against this background, Manoli’s performance before the Supreme Court holds more than merely antiquarian interest. In a policy area that’s often assumed to be governed by impersonal economic laws and abstract market forces, the end of Joy Silk is the rare instance where a major change in labor law can be traced more or less directly to the actions of a single individual. If Manoli’s decision to abandon Joy Silk in March 1969 contributed to the presently anemic state of the labor movement, then what possibilities could its readoption hold for the movement’s future?

This is part of a blog that originally appeared in full at Politico on June 7, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Ian Ward is a contributing editor for Politico Magazine.


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The New Labor Movement Is Young, Worker-Led and Winning

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Katie Barrows

This year, May Day was celebrated during a historic moment for the American labor movement. Nearly every day, news reports announce another example of workers exercising their rights as nonprofit professionals, Starbucks workers, and employees at corporations like Amazon, REI and Conde Nast announce their union drives. The approval rating for labor unions has reached its highest point in over 50 years, standing at 68 percent, and petitions for new union elections at the National Labor Relations Board increased 57 percent during the first half of fiscal year 2021.

Three years ago, we (In These Times) wrote an op-ed about how young workers in historically unorganized occupations — such as digital journalism, higher education and nonprofit organizations — were beginning to rebuild the labor movement. Today, Covid-19 has changed the way that we relate to work and created new sources of economic anxiety, while exacerbating old ones. Yet, young workers continue to fuel the new labor movement as they form new unions to win back a degree of control over their futures in a world fundamentally altered by a global pandemic. With momentum in union organizing and worker activism still growing, it is important to recognize the ways that workers in every industry are helping the labor movement live up to its values and reverse the years-long decline in union density. 

Through organizing campaigns at the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, we’ve learned that successful new organizing campaigns must be member-led. Recent organizing victories at Amazon in Staten Island and at Starbucks stores across the country have reinforced the importance of workers themselves being empowered to be the drivers of their own organizing campaigns. We’ve also seen this in other traditionally unorganized sectors, such as political campaigns, digital media and tech.

There are a variety of reasons why member-led organizing campaigns tend to be more effective. One is the commitment that worker-led union organizing requires — leading a union organizing campaign is not for the faint of heart. Worker-leaders must be dedicated, and their time and energy investment means they have more skin in the game. Additionally, these workers build genuinely supportive relationships with their coworkers through one-on-one conversations, working in teams on union materials, and happy hours that bring more workers into the organizing drive. The relationships built during a worker-led organizing campaign helps workers to feel supported, as they know that their coworkers have their back. This collective approach also solidifies workers’ resolve to push back on empty rhetoric from their employer.

Member-driven campaigns are also key to combating bosses’ anti-union campaigns. When workers are active in setting campaign strategy, reaching out to their coworkers, and driving the narrative of the union campaign, they can successfully push back on corporate union-busters’ messaging that the union is a “third-party” or “outside agitator” — because workers know that they are their union.

The significance of momentum can not be understated. In all of these newly organized industries, we’ve seen the power a single union victory can have when it sparks a new consciousness among workers who previously didn’t know they could join a union, or didn’t think unions existed that understood and could address their specific concerns. Union wins years ago at Gawker, the Center for American Progress and Kickstarter helped incite the momentum for new organizing, and laid the groundwork for the campaigns we are seeing today. 

We’ve also learned the importance of publicizing our unions’ tangible contract gains. Workers want to be a part of a union that’s effective at improving their pay, benefits, and working conditions, so we as a labor movement need to make the public aware of our wins. That’s why our union and others in newly organized spaces will shout our wins from the rooftops with press releases, social media posts, news stories, and through any other means that will spread the word.

Today’s unions are making incredible gains and raising workplace standards.

Katie Barrow and Ethan Miller

Today’s unions are making incredible gains and raising workplace standards. For example, members of our union at the Center for American Progress recently won a new contract that raised starting salaries by 20 percent over three years, secured annual raises of between 2-2.5 percent, and codified junior staff’s right to be credited on research and policy publications that they work on. Union members at G/O Media ratified a new contract that raised the organization’s salary floor to $62,000, includes trans-inclusive healthcare and prevents forced relocation for remote staff. At NPR, union journalists won 20 weeks of paid parental leave, a hiring process that commits to interviewing more candidates from underrepresented groups, and regular pay equity reviews. The more folks outside of the labor movement know about these victories, the more they will want to learn more about forming a union in their own workplaces. 

Millennials and Gen Z are excited, energized, and winning new gains and a new sense of power at work. For the labor movement to continue to grow, we must learn from each other, continue implementing the strategies that are winning union organizing campaigns, and support new, young leaders. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 9, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Katie Barrows and Ethan Miller are the President and Secretary-Treasurer of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70, which is made up of the staff of 49 organizations in Washington, DC and across the country.


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The New Labor Movement Is Young, Worker-Led and Winning

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Katie Barrows — IFPTE

From Starbucks and Amazon to political campaigns and digital media, workers in historically unorganized occupations are forming unions—and breathing new life into the U.S. labor movement.

This year, May Day was celebrated during a historic moment for the American labor movement. Nearly every day, news reports announce another example of workers exercising their rights as nonprofit professionals, Starbucks workers, and employees at corporations like Amazon, REI and Conde Nast announce their union drives. The approval rating for labor unions has reached its highest point in over 50 years, standing at 68 percent, and petitions for new union elections at the National Labor Relations Board increased 57 percent during the first half of fiscal year 2021.

Three years ago, we wrote an op-ed about how young workers in historically unorganized occupations—such as digital journalism, higher education and nonprofit organizations—were beginning to rebuild the labor movement. Today, Covid-19 has changed the way that we relate to work and created new sources of economic anxiety, while exacerbating old ones. Yet, young workers continue to fuel the new labor movement as they form new unions to win back a degree of control over their futures in a world fundamentally altered by a global pandemic. With momentum in union organizing and worker activism still growing, it is important to recognize the ways that workers in every industry are helping the labor movement live up to its values and reverse the years-long decline in union density. 

Through organizing campaigns at the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, we’ve learned that successful new organizing campaigns must be member-led. Recent organizing victories at Amazon in Staten Island and at Starbucks stores across the country have reinforced the importance of workers themselves being empowered to be the drivers of their own organizing campaigns. We’ve also seen this in other traditionally unorganized sectors, such as political campaigns, digital media and tech.

There are a variety of reasons why member-led organizing campaigns tend to be more effective. One is the commitment that worker-led union organizing requires—leading a union organizing campaign is not for the faint of heart. Worker-leaders must be dedicated, and their time and energy investment means they have more skin in the game. Additionally, these workers build genuinely supportive relationships with their coworkers through one-on-one conversations, working in teams on union materials, and happy hours that bring more workers into the organizing drive. The relationships built during a worker-led organizing campaign helps workers to feel supported, as they know that their coworkers have their back. This collective approach also solidifies workers’ resolve to push back on empty rhetoric from their employer.

Member-driven campaigns are also key to combating bosses’ anti-union campaigns. When workers are active in setting campaign strategy, reaching out to their coworkers, and driving the narrative of the union campaign, they can successfully push back on corporate union-busters’ messaging that the union is a “third-party” or “outside agitator”—because workers know that they are their union.

The significance of momentum can not be understated. In all of these newly organized industries, we’ve seen the power a single union victory can have when it sparks a new consciousness among workers who previously didn’t know they could join a union, or didn’t think unions existed that understood and could address their specific concerns. Union wins years ago at Gawker, the Center for American Progress and Kickstarter helped incite the momentum for new organizing, and laid the groundwork for the campaigns we are seeing today. 

We’ve also learned the importance of publicizing our unions’ tangible contract gains. Workers want to be a part of a union that’s effective at improving their pay, benefits, and working conditions, so we as a labor movement need to make the public aware of our wins. That’s why our union and others in newly organized spaces will shout our wins from the rooftops with press releases, social media posts, news stories, and through any other means that will spread the word.

Today’s unions are making incredible gains and raising workplace standards. For example, members of our union at the Center for American Progress recently won a new contract that raised starting salaries by 20 percent over three years, secured annual raises of between 22.5 percent, and codified junior staff’s right to be credited on research and policy publications that they work on. Union members at G/O Media ratified a new contract that raised the organization’s salary floor to $62,000, includes trans-inclusive healthcare and prevents forced relocation for remote staff. At NPR, union journalists won 20 weeks of paid parental leave, a hiring process that commits to interviewing more candidates from underrepresented groups, and regular pay equity reviews. The more folks outside of the labor movement know about these victories, the more they will want to learn more about forming a union in their own workplaces. 

Millennials and Gen Z are excited, energized, and winning new gains and a new sense of power at work. For the labor movement to continue to grow, we must learn from each other, continue implementing the strategies that are winning union organizing campaigns, and support new, young leaders. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 9, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Katie Barrows and Ethan Miller are the President and Secretary-Treasurer of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70, which is made up of the staff of 49 organizations in Washington, DC and across the country.


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The Leadership Struggle In One of California’s Most Powerful Unions Just Keeps Getting Weirder

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

Accusations of cheating, chicanery and violent retaliation dog the SEIU Local 1000 election. The consequences for labor are very real.

Even by the chaotic standards of the past year, the story of SEIU Local 1000 stands out for its bizarreness. One of the most politically powerful unions in California, representing nearly 100,000 state employees, announced last month that its longtime president, Yvonne Walker, had lost an election to a gadfly named Richard Louis Brown, who ran on a platform of ending the union’s (substantial) political donations, which made him an instant right-wing media darling. Now, the election is beset with allegations of misconduct and dangerous retaliation, while Brown positions himself as a truthteller under attack?—?but the union’s future has never been more uncertain. 

What we know for sure is this: Brown, an employee of the state treasurer’s office who had twice before run unsuccessfully for a leadership position, won the SEIU Local 1000 presidential election on May 24 with only 33% of the vote. Walker, who had led the union since 2008, received 27%, and three other challengers split the rest. Only 7,880 ballots were cast. Therefore the union’s entire approach to how it wields power for tens of thousands of members may be upended by about 500 votes. 

The drama was only beginning. Brown, it turned out, had publicly offered to pay the dues of members so that they could vote in the election. Though he says that no one took him up on it, the outcome of the election was challenged, and a ?“protest committee” inside the union will render a decision before the end of June. The makeup of that committee is controlled by Yvonne Walker, the person who lost to Brown, and who still has a couple of weeks left in office. Now, all sides of the election are simultaneously suspicious?—?some believing that Brown cheated, and others believing that Walker and her allies are conspiring to roll back Brown’s victory. Walker herself is not an uncontroversial leader. An essay in Strikewave last week by Jonah Paul, a rank and file member of SEIU 1000, characterized Walker as a ?“centrist, politically shrewd, and utterly tyrannical” president who used bureaucratic maneuvering to consolidate power in her own hands and systematically push out rivals, to the detriment of members and morale. 

Immediately after his election, Brown received a rash of media attention when he said that he would not offer the union’s backing to California Governor Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall attempt. But the platform that Brown is planning to implement offers much more frightening promises for labor movement traditionalists. He vows to zero out spending on electoral politics, which would be a major blow to the California Democratic Party. And he says he will cut member dues in half, and allow members who do not pay dues at all (enabled by the 2018 Supreme Court Janus ruling, which allowed public employees to opt out of financial support for their unions) to vote in union elections?—?setting up the potential of both a dramatic drop in income for the union, and a political takeover by conservative, anti-union membership. Already, Brown’s election has been celebrated in the Wall Street JournalFox News, and by the Koch-funded anti-union Freedom Foundation, a good indication that he is already being held up by conservatives as that rare creature: A union president who is a hero of right wing, anti-labor institutions. 

But Brown, whose Trumpian tics include exclamation point-laden prose and ominous questions about vaccines, has more immediate concerns on his mind. In an interview on Monday, he said that on May 25, the day after his victory was announced, Sacramento police showed up at his house at 5 a.m., after an anonymous person called them with a report of a woman screaming. Brown, who lives alone, says he believes this incident was ?“retaliation against me for winning this election,” and was a serious threat to his safety. 

“If they swear me in, I’m going to go on national TV and give interviews to anybody that wants to know the truth about the corruption of this union that I belong to,” he said. ?“I have no confidence in my union at all. My life could have been taken from me… I’m concerned for my life. That’s what I’m concerned for right now.” 

The Sacramento Police Department confirmed that the call occurred: ?“On May 25, 2021 at approximately 5:02 a.m., the Sacramento Police Department responded to a reported call for service in the 3200 block of 43rd Street. The unidentified caller stated that they heard a possible disturbance inside of a residence on the street. Officers checked the residence and determined that there was no disturbance and the call appeared to be unfounded.” They added, however, that the false call appeared to be part of a pattern. ?“The department has also received at least two other calls of similar circumstances for other residences within this area, and on different streets. These calls have occurred over the last few weeks.”

“You know Breonna Taylor lost her life. And here I am, helping people… and I could have lost my life over this,” Brown said of the police incident. ?“Local 1000 needs to stop playing these games with me. The Sacramento Police Department needs to investigate who made that call against me.”

The police department said ?“These incidents have been documented in a report and the department has not identified any specific intended victims of these unfounded calls for service at this time. The department will continue to investigate any further incidents that occur to determine if there is a connection between them.” Yvonne Walker said in an interview that she did not know anything about the incident. (Brown and Walker are both Black.)

Discussing his platform, Brown called the requirement that only dues-payers vote in elections, which is standard procedure in most unions, a ?“poll tax,” and likened it to laws that oppressed Black voters in the past. He said his preference would be to see the end of exclusive representation?—?the requirement that unions represent everyone in a workplace whether they pay dues or not?—?but barring that, he would like to see non-payers be able to vote. Such a policy would allow union politics to be controlled, at least in part, by the people most hostile to the union. Brown said he has ?“no connection” to the Freedom Foundation or any other anti-labor group. 

“A union, when they can automatically control your wages and working conditions, they could care less about how you feel. And this is the case with Local 1000,” Brown said. Some members of the union are living paycheck to paycheck, and would be better served if the union stopped spending money on politics, slashed their dues, and built a strike fund to help it wield power via strike threats rather than political donations. ?“As long as our union spends more than 50 percent on politics, to the Democratic Party, they’re alienating half the union, and this is why they cannot raise their membership. And this is why I got elected.”

Such a policy would also have major implications for the most politically active national union in America. ?“We have to stop our political spending,” Brown says. ?“Does that mean we have to end our affiliation with SEIU? I would probably say yes.”

Opponents see this theory of how to gain power as, at best, naĂŻve?—?particularly for a union of state employees. ?“It’s incredibly important [to be involved in politics], especially for public service workers. Our bosses are politicians,” said Yvonne Walker. ?“If we’re not having a voice in electing the people that share the same values that we do, that is a very grave mistake.”

Likewise, she said that Local 1000 would regret any decision not to support Gavin Newsom against the recall effort. ?“We have traveled this road before. We saw what happened after Gray Davis got recalled [in 2003],” she said. ?“We went through the loss of some things that people thought were just automatic. And they weren’t. And I would hate to see us in that place again.”

Walker said she was proud of accomplishments like putting the union on a sound financial footing, buying a headquarters building, expanding apprenticeship programs, and guiding the union through the aftermath of the 2008 recession. She rejected the criticisms raised in the Strikewave story, saying she would not have done anything differently during her time in office to increase union democracy or to further encourage more members to vote in elections. And she voiced hopes that whoever succeeds her will make strong efforts to lock in the newfound flexible work arrangements that employees have been able to try out during the pandemic. But, she said, she will not be around to lead those efforts, no matter what happens.

For now, the fate of nearly 100,000 union members faces a maddening level of unpredictability. Pending the outcome of the union’s election review, control could pass to Brown, who would lead the organization down a radical conservative path, or the election could be run again, adding even more uncertainty as to what the future would hold. The only certainty is that whatever happens, the losing factions will feel cheated and full of distrust. It is an ominous set of ingredients for decisions that will profoundly affect members, their families and the labor movement as a whole?—?not to mention the electoral politics of the nation’s most populous state.

The only person who seems to have achieved some level of peace is Yvonne Walker herself, who does not believe that Brown’s plans will ever come to fruition. ?“It’s easy to make pronouncements,” she said dismissively, ?“when you don’t know how things work.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Striking ATI Steelworkers Hold the Line for Premium-Free Health Insurance

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General President Peter Knowlton to Retire (but Stay Active in the Union) |  UE

Across the country, steelworkers at nine plants of Allegheny Technologies, Inc. have been on strike for the last 11 weeks.

They want raises; to stop contracting out; to secure full funding of their retirement benefits; and to beat back management’s efforts to introduce health insurance premiums and a second tier of coverage for younger workers.

The Steelworkers union (USW) accuses ATI of unfair labor practices including bad faith bargaining, and of holding retiree benefits hostage for contract concessions.

ATI, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh, makes steel used in aerospace and defense, oil and gas, chemical processes, and electrical energy generation.

Five years ago ATI locked workers out for seven months, demanding major concessions on wages, pensions, and health insurance. Workers fought off the bulk of those demands, though the company was able to shed future liability for the pension by replacing it with a 401(k) for anyone hired after 2015—a huge cost shift to workers that makes a decent retirement at age 65 unlikely for new hires.

There were 2,200 workers at 12 unionized sites back then. There are 1,300 at nine sites this time around.

Most of the shops are in areas still reeling from the deindustrialization of the ’80s and ’90s. Five are in western Pennsylvania: Canton Township, Brackenridge, Latrobe, Natrona Heights, and Vandergrift. The others are in Louisville, Ohio; Lockport, New York; East Hartford, Connecticut; and New Bedford, Massachusetts, where 60 members are on strike.

MANUFACTURING DESCENT

One of only a few remaining union manufacturers in southeast Massachusetts, ATI has long been seen as a place to earn decent pay and a respectable retirement.

As a young organizer with the United Electrical Workers (UE) in the ’80s and early ’90s I spent many mornings and afternoons leafleting at the ATI plant in New Bedford—then called Rodney Metals, before it was eventually bought out by ATI—and other shops in the area, encouraging workers to organize. (I like to think we helped lay the groundwork for the USW’s eventual success in the mid-’90s.)

Back then there were thousands and thousands of decently paid union workers in manufacturing, and those union shops drove the area rates and standards. The spillover effect was real. Non-union employers like Rodney Metals were “forced” to pay similar rates and conditions in order to compete for workers.

Those days are gone. Like many places throughout the country, southeast Massachusetts lost thousands of manufacturing jobs—union and nonunion—during the Reagan era of greed, union-busting, and moving jobs to lower-wage, nonunion locations (sometimes overseas, but not always). UE lost close to 2,000 members in southeast Massachusetts in less than a decade.

Some of the more innovative and militant strategies to fight plant closings were developed from the struggles of these workers to defend and preserve manufacturing jobs in hard-hit industrial New England.

Now, with the pension replaced by a 401(k) and after seven years of wage freezes, working at ATI—or in manufacturing generally—is not such a great deal anymore. Factory work in the area is now pretty much all nonunion, and most places pay less and provide fewer benefits than they did 20 years ago.

Plus, anyone who has worked in a factory knows the toll the work takes on your body and soul. The camaraderie can be great, but the brutal pace of work in an unhealthy environment is unrelenting. Your body slowly unravels and falls apart.

FLUSH WITH CASH

Now ATI is demanding to gut the benefits of present and future workers even further, which will further erode the living standards of the area. To sell its offers, the company points to wage increases and lump sum payments—but, as the union has pointed out, these are all based on savings generated from other concessionary proposals.

Meanwhile, the company has almost “a billion dollars in liquidity and more than half a billion dollars in the cash drawer,” according to a strike bulletin from the union. The three top executives made $22 million last year in salaries and an additional $17 million in bonuses.

The average hourly rate for production workers is only in the mid-$20s per hour, with the lowest-paying job around $22. Lots of maintenance work has been subcontracted, especially since the last contract. Presently to contract out work the company simply has to notify the union and engage in a discussion; if it doesn’t, the company pays a penalty to a local charity.

These “notification” requirements have done little to stop the company from decimating the maintenance department. But even this weak arrangement isn’t enough for ATI. It wants no accountability or discussion with the union about keeping maintenance work in-house, and it continues to propose eliminating arbitration over even the minimal requirement to give notice.

A PREMIUM ON HEALTH INSURANCE

This strike is in large measure over health insurance. In a sea of non-union workplaces with unaffordable health plans, ATI workers are striking to keep their plan affordable to members.

Presently the company pays the entire health insurance premium—workers were able to stave off ATI’s efforts to force them to pay premiums during the 2015-16 lockout. Workers have an upfront deductible that is 10 percent of first-dollar coverage up to $300 for an individual and $600 for a family per year. If you go outside the network, it is double those figures.

ATI now wants workers to pay 5 percent of the premium and increase the deductible to $500 for an individual and $1,000 for a family. What the company is really after, however, are the new hires: the company wants them to pay 10 percent of their premiums. It’s the typical and divisive two-tier system that unions know all too well.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, which researches and publishes national health insurance data and conducts annual surveys on employer-provided health insurance, says that in 1999 the average annual premium was $2,196 for single plans and $5,791 for family plans. Twenty years later those figures have skyrocketed by 240 percent and 269 percent, respectively, to $7,470 for individuals and $21,342 for families.

Employers still contribute the majority of that, but workers now pay an average of $5,588 in premiums alone for family coverage (up from $1,543 in 1999), not to mention the increased share of other medical costs they bear. Wages over that same period have increased, on average, only 77 percent.

A BENCHMARK FOR ALL

Up until the 1980s, when the health insurance industry and employers began imposing premiums, deductibles, co-pays, and other schemes to gobble up more of our paychecks, fully employer-paid health insurance was not uncommon at all.

Those union workplaces that have been able to maintain that standard help all of us—not just their members. They set a benchmark for the wages and benefits that other employers in the same industry or geographic area need to provide to stay “competitive.” They influence what workers and the local community expect a job to offer.

When a benefit is allowed to erode over time, so does the standard. Seeing these workers at ATI fighting to defend premium-free health insurance, something most unions have lost, is inspiring.

“I am proud of my fellow brothers and sisters on the line,” said Bedford ATI worker John Camarao, the grievance chair for USW Local 1357. “Members are in a great hardship right now entering the third month of the strike, but what we’re fighting for is not only for our future but for the future of new hires and our retirees’ benefits.

“Their demands are meant to divide us, but instead they have united us, and our resolve is to see this to the end.”

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on June 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Knowlton is the retired general president of the United Electrical Workers (UE).


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How Many Strikes Are There in the U.S.?

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Johnnie Kallas

How many strikes are there in the United States?

It’s a question with obvious importance to labor activists, yet there is no readily accessible answer.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases an annual work stoppage summary in February reporting the number of strikes and lockouts over the prior year—but only those that involved at least 1,000 workers and lasted an entire shift. This is especially problematic because nearly 60 percent of all private sector workers are employed by companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. Even many of those who work at big firms are in bargaining units or workplaces with under 1,000 workers.

The BLS kept track of all work stoppages involving six workers or more and lasting at least a full shift until 1982, when cuts by the Reagan administration diminished resources for labor research and statistics.

According to BLS data, strikes increased significantly in 2018 and 2019—after a long decline—before returning to historic lows in 2020. But we cannot know for certain how accurate a picture this is, since the BLS excludes a sizable amount of strike activity by only capturing big strikes. Even the ongoing strike by the Massachusetts Nurses Association at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester—owned by Tenet Healthcare, one of the country’s largest for-profit hospital chains—is left out of the BLS data, because the strike involves just 800 nurses.

NEW LABOR ACTION TRACKER

This gap in our understanding of strike activity is a serious limitation for our knowledge about the labor movement. To help fill this void, we have created the ILR Labor Action Tracker, housed at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, to more accurately track strikes and labor protests across the U.S. (Unlike the BLS, we are not currently collecting data on lockouts, though we hope to add that data in the future.)

One important advance is that our tracker also includes labor protests, such as rallies and informational pickets. That means it includes the recent rally by 2,000 food delivery drivers in New York City demanding better pay and improved health and safety. It also includes a multi-city action by Tribune Publishing employees—who work for newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun—to prevent the sale of the company to a hedge fund.

Considering the vast legal and economic obstacles to striking, we believe it is important to capture these types of events to show the wide range of tactics used by U.S. workers in the 21st century. Users are able to search our interactive map for strikes and labor protests separately or both types of actions together.

We distinguish between strikes and labor protests based on whether a temporary stoppage of work occurred as part of the action. This definition of a strike is relatively inclusive, covering actions like wildcats and sickouts.

In some cases, such as the national days of action associated with the Fight for 15 campaign, it can be particularly difficult to determine whether the action should be labeled a strike or labor protest. But if we can convincingly demonstrate, based on the sources we cite, that a collective stoppage of work occurred as part of the protest, we will add that event to our tracker as a strike. Full information about our methodology, including how we add actions to our tracker and the other variables we capture, can be found here.

A DIFFERENT PICTURE

We began tracking strikes in late 2020, though our database is most reliable beginning in March 2021. We have discovered a much different reality of strike and protest activity in the United States than existing sources indicate.

We found that 28 strikes occurred during the month of April alone. That includes all strikes that began after January 1, 2021, and were still ongoing at some point in April. This stands in stark contrast to recent annual data from the BLS, which identified just seven major work stoppages in all of 2017, 20 in 2018, 25 in 2019, and eight in 2020. The BLS documented just six strikes in April; among the strikes it excluded were the aforementioned walkout by 800 Massachusetts nurses at St. Vincent Hospital, a strike for a first contract by 200 faculty members at the Oregon Institute of Technology, and a strike by 24 distribution workers fighting for a pay increase after a four-year wage freeze at N.H. Scheppers Distributing in Missouri, among many others.

While we know that more strikes are occurring than existing data would indicate, we recognize that strike activity today is nowhere near the levels seen in the mid-20th century. For example, the BLS identified an average of 821 work stoppages (both strikes and lockouts, involving six workers or more and lasting at least a full shift) for the month of April during the 1970s, before the Reagan administration’s cuts forced the agency to only capture major events. Additional research is needed to generate more rigorous and informative historical comparisons.

Workers face immense obstacles to organizing and striking that have only become more pronounced over the past few decades. We hope that our project will amplify the voices of striking and protesting workers, as well as draw attention to these obstacles.

We welcome any feedback on how to make this tool more useful for workers and the labor movement. Our project aims to democratize data and inform labor activists about labor actions in their communities. Going forward, we hope to more accurately capture labor protests and pinpoint the location of ongoing strikes based on the address of a major picket line, which should help local activists support striking workers.

We are aiming to be as comprehensive as possible (especially on strikes)—so if you notice that we are missing a strike or labor protest, please use the report button on our website or fill out this Google form.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on May 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the authors: Johnnie Kallas, a former labor organizer, is a PhD student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and director of the ILR Labor Action Tracker. Eli Friedman is a professor and chair of the Department of International and Comparative Labor at the ILR School. He serves as faculty advisor of the Labor Action Tracker. Dana Trentalange, another former labor organizer, is a recent graduate student of the master’s program at the ILR School, and is the Labor Action Tracker’s coordinator and social media strategist.


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